Six Months Later
LILLIA CROUCHED below the short wall of the roof. She sat atop a dark grey building, three stories high, listening to the man down on the street as he rapped and shouted to himself while pacing in circles at the intersection of Baxter Avenue and Hull Street.
They’d been following him off and on for the past week. Ayo, he called himself, as in, “Ayo, I need a dub.” A newly aspiring drug dealer who’d tried to work his way into the area surrounding Phoenix Hill Tavern–or Barrytown, as Hayden had coined it–but had quickly been kicked out, for reasons unknown.
After the nuclear bomb incident, Barry disappeared. That was nearly six months ago and so far he hadn’t shown his face. For a long time Lillia assumed he was dead, but then the CNG boys suddenly took over a long stretch of Baxter Avenue, guarding it the way the military guarded the city. In the center of this quarantined area stood the tavern, where even four blocks away Lillia could hear music blaring.
“Dad loves music,” Hayden had said when they first discovered this development.
Louisville had turned into a ghost town. No traffic, few pedestrians, no planes flying overhead, no barges on the river, no trains. Silence, except for the tavern and the area surrounding it.
Was he building an army? Playing king? Why wasn’t he coming after them?
Kidnapping Ayo was Lillia’s idea. While Hayden insisted on keeping quiet as long as Barry did the same, she couldn’t ignore the feeling that something terrible was happening in that tavern.
Lillia peaked over the wall, first checking on Ayo, who seemed too focused on finding customers to look up, and then searching out Hayden, who studied Ayo from around the corner of a building across the street.
Fallen leaves and dead tree limbs crunched under Ayo’s feet as he strolled. It was late April and so far Lillia hadn’t seen a single bloom, a single leaf. Even the grass was dead. The object blocked all but the weak sunlight of dawn and dusk, and the metro area hadn’t felt a drop of rain since October, leaving the ground to dry up and crack open and the air thick with dust.
Lillia made eye contact with Hayden. He shaped a pair of binoculars with his hands and then pointed down the street toward Barrytown. Up on the roof, Lillia had the better vantage. She stayed low as she moved to the south side of the building, then scanned the wall of crushed cars no doubt erected by Barry himself. Sometimes gang members with hunting rifles sat atop the adjoining roofs above this makeshift wall. Terrible shots, most likely, but Lillia didn’t want to find out.
Right now the coast was clear. She returned to the east-facing wall and gave Hayden a quick thumbs up. He stepped out from behind the building and began to approach Ayo.
Lillia waited until he was within ten feet. Then she hiked her leg up, planted her sneaker on the wall, and stood up on the ledge.
“Hey!” she shouted.
Ayo spun around and looked up at her. “Yo girl, whatcha doin’ up there?”
She jumped, sailing down the side of the building with her hands pressed against her hips to hold her skirt in place. Hayden stopped to watch her. She smiled at him just before her feet connected with the sidewalk. As before, she hit the ground with no more force than if she’d simply hopped in place.
Ayo had turned and covered his face, still spouting a string of curse words.
They were upon him quickly, and when he turned back to Lillia, his eyes widened in disbelief.
“But you jumped,” he said, pointing up at the roof. He heard Hayden’s footsteps and spun around again. “Who they hell are you people?”
“We’d like you to come with us,” Hayden said.
Ayo shook his head and began to back away, reaching into his pocket.
Hayden’s swiftness was amazing. He put Ayo to the ground and somehow took the gun from his pocket all at once and now stood over him, pointing the .38 at Ayo’s face.
Years of Tae Kwon Do gave him an advantage. So far he was developing the skills afforded him by the little squid on his head faster than Lillia. She was worried about that, but at least Hayden made her feel safe, something she hadn’t experienced since she lived with Ms. Jenny–a life she barely remembered anymore.
No matter how he made her feel, she knew she couldn’t get too comfortable. Barry’s absence frightened her, but not as much as the silence of the object.
She dreamed of the nuclear bomb every night. Glowing, translucent creatures of every color pouring out of the object by the hundreds and coalescing into a single pinpoint of blinding white light moments before connecting with the warhead.
Nothing happened. The bomb simply disappeared, and the white dot of light drifted back into the object.
That’s when the object responded for the first–and so far only–time. The giant ring hovering around it suddenly began to move, blasting the city with wind gusts that knocked everyone off their feet and generating a deafening rumble, like thunder without end.
The ring stopped in a vertical, north-facing position, and that’s where it currently remained, its lowest point maybe twice as high as the tallest building in Louisville. Staring at it too long gave Lillia vertigo, even though she had shed her fear of heights by spending the past six months learning to jump from roof to roof.
The sun was coming up over the trees now at its peak brightness. Before long it would touch the object’s horizon and disappear again.
“Don’t kill me, man,” Ayo kept repeating. “I ain’t done nobody wrong. Come on, man.”
“I’m not going to kill you,” Hayden said, “as long as you do exactly as I say.”
“Aight, aight, no prob.”
Ayo stood, slowly, suspiciously. He looked from Hayden to Lillia, then back again. Then he bolted up the street.
Hayden laughed and Lillia stepped up next to him. Together they watched Ayo turn a corner and disappear.
“You want to get him?” Hayden asked.
Lillia shrugged. “Sure.”
In a matter of seconds, she’d leapt back onto the building and off the other side, landing directly in Ayo’s path.
The biggest challenge they’d faced since things had gone quiet was finding a place to live. Roger thought it best to take over Mall St. Matthews, citing the availability of food and supplies, and in the end he won the debate in the eyes of Meredith and Sherman, so the group had split up, with Lillia and Hayden going it alone. They met up with the other group once a week to restock, share information, and report any important activity, but Lillia firmly believed it was only a matter of time before Barry would send his gang to raid the place, once other malls and grocery stores ran out of stock.
At first they stayed in a large suite on the top floor of a hotel near the airport, but that was when the city experienced a month-long power outage. Climbing the stairs became tedious, and finally they discovered the hotel was infested with junkies holing up in rooms to party.
During the power outage, they jumped from house to house in Old Louisville, then the Highlands, then the St. Matthews area, moving only when an unfriendly party discovered them or they stumbled upon a better place to live.
Then one day they awoke to an alarm clock blaring. The power had somehow been restored. That day, they drove up to River Road and walked around one of the parks for hours, waiting for a coal barge to pass. None did.
They were headed back to the car when another car whipped into the parking lot and stopped with its headlights blinding them. They both braced for attack, but the voice of an old man said, “Hayden, is that you?”
He was a family friend, Hayden later explained. Samuel Smith, a retired meteorologist who used to do the weather reports on one of the local stations back in the eighties. Lillia watched Hayden help the feeble old man out of the car and wondered how he managed to climb in by himself. They spoke for a while about people she didn’t know, Sam recounting every mutual acquaintance who skipped town when the object appeared.
“I’m too old for all this running around,” he explained, turning his face up to the sky and exhaling. “What a sight, eh? Who could walk away from this? Even if we all die, at least we got to see it.” After a moment’s pause, he said, “How’s your dad?”
“I haven’t seen him,” Hayden said. “Don’t know where he is.”
“Probably looking for you. What about your mom?”
Hayden shook his head. “The same.” He changed the subject quickly, asking how Sam was getting along and offering for him to join their group, but Sam was unperturbed. “Lex is staying with me. I’ll be just fine.”
“Who’s Lex?” Lillia asked, her first contribution to the discussion.
Hayden and Sam took turns explaining that Sam broke his leg and cracked a few ribs in a car accident ten years ago. He hired an in-home physical therapist, Lex, and when he was back to normal he kept her on as a personal assistant.
“I just like her, you know. She’s a good girl. It gets lonely being a widower.” He chuckled. “I feel sorry for anyone who trespasses on my property.”
“She’s big into kickboxing,” Hayden said. “I sparred with her once. Big mistake.”
“Where is she now?”
“Skinning a deer in the backyard,” said Sam. Hayden smiled and cocked his head curiously. Sam shrugged. “Well, you know how these deer are around here. They’ve been tearing up my garden for years. It’s not like anyone’s around to enforce the no-gunshot-within-city-limits law. Food’s getting harder to come by.”
Sam went on to offer them a place to stay, but Hayden declined, and Lillia knew why. He didn’t want to endanger the old man. Sooner or later, Barry would be coming for them.
As he helped the old man back into his Bentley, Lillia overheard him whispering, “You kids need a place to stay, I can give you Jim Baker’s security code. It’s the same for the gate and the house. Now that’s a place to wait it out, and you know Jim won’t be coming back until that thing’s gone–if ever. He’s probably down in the Bahamas right now.”
“I’ve never met Jim Baker,” Hayden said.
“Oh, so do you know which house I’m talking about?”
Sam grinned. “It’s on the way home. You might want to follow me.”
When they came to the big iron gate, Sam honked, pointed out the window, and drove on. Hayden pulled up to the security panel and input the code.
“Are you sure no one’s home?”
“According to him,” Hayden said.
The driveway snaked up the side of a hill. Hayden had to maneuver around the fallen branches of enormous and ancient maple and oak trees. Finally they reached the top and stopped.
This wasn’t a house. It was a mansion.
They’d been living here almost a month and Lillia still got lost on a daily basis. Why would anyone ever need a house the size of a hospital? Hayden left her with the task of locking Ayo away in the kitchen walk-in down in the basement while he made a sweep around the house to check for intruders.
Yesterday they’d cut the refrigerant, removed all the food, and put a bed in the walk-in. Lillia thought it inhumane, but there were no other rooms in the house from which Ayo couldn’t escape.
The only problem was she couldn’t find the elevator.
“Dis a big house. Where’s my room?”
“That’s a good question.”
“This your place?”
“Ah, I see. You just moved right in after the owners left. Smart. I didn’t think about the rich folks leaving. I’m a have to find me a mansion after I’m done with y’all.” They reached the end of the hall, Lillia walking behind Ayo, gun pointed at his back. Ayo turned. “You know where we’re going?”
“I can’t remember.”
She stood against the wall and motioned for Ayo to head back the way they came.
Her memory was getting worse. Not only that but her problem-solving abilities as well. She’d always been a great student, able to ace tests and contribute to book discussions on a level above her classmates. But now even her memories of Drake and Kate were growing cloudy in her mind. She thought of them often but only because she knew she had to, lest she forget them altogether.
It didn’t make any sense. While her physical prowess continued to grow, her mind was slipping. The only explanation was the thing on her head.
And yet Hayden was thriving in all aspects.
When they reached the foyer, she instructed Ayo to sit on one of the sofas lining the walls. She sat across the room from him.
“What now?” he asked.
“We’re waiting for Hayden.”
“What’s he doin’?”
She glanced around, frowning. “I don’t know. Oh, he’s securing the house.”
“Man, y’all jokers are trippy,” Ayo said, pulling a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. “This a non-smokin’ establishment?”
Lillia shrugged. Watching Ayo light a cigarette made her think of Sherman, who’d only sided with Roger and gone to Mall St. Matthews because he couldn’t live with the guilt of failing to protect Drake and Kate. She wanted him to be here if only to serve as a reminder of them.
“How old are y’all?” Ayo asked.
“I just turned seventeen.”
“What about him?”
“Me too. Doubt we went to school together. Hey, y’all got any liquor in this place?”
“I think so.”
“You gonna offer me a drink?”
“That’s up to Hayden.”
“He’s the man of the house.”
“You his girlfriend?”
Ayo sat forward. “I see, I see. You and me should both have a drink.”
“Aight, I see. So what do y’all want from Ayo?”
“Well, you got to tell me or I can’t do it.”
“Hayden will tell you.”
Ayo curled his brow and took a long drag from his cigarette. He blew smoke in her direction and said, “You don’t like me very much.”
“I don’t know you.”
“But you think you do. You think you know what I’m about. You think I’d hurt you if I got the chance.”
“You tried to pull a gun on us, didn’t you?”
“Baby doll, you got super powers. Jumpin’ off roofs and shit. And you’re scared of me? Damn. The hell you thinkin’, girl?”
“Are you in a gang?”
Ayo burst out laughing. “Nah, nah, no gangs for me.”
“What do you do? Besides selling drugs?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“Are you going to?”
He sighed. “Aight, but don’t laugh.”
“Yeah, that was my thang. Went to school for it and all that. You ever seen a black Romeo? Got the lead right before all this happened. Now I’ll never get to do it.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“I’ve never heard of a theater actor selling drugs.”
Ayo smiled. “You want to hear a story?”
When he spoke next, his voice changed completely. He enunciated properly, ruminative. “My real name is Damitri. Ayo is a character I created. I’m not a drug dealer. Well, I wasn’t. It’s hard to play the roll of a drug dealer if you don’t have drugs in your pocket. Where you found me, down on Baxter, I’m sure you saw they’ve walled off several blocks, right?”
Lillia was so stunned she couldn’t respond.
Damitri continued, “Long story short, a few weeks ago a bunch of guys broke into the house and took my sister. It was weird. When it happened, I thought what you’re probably thinking, but they didn’t touch her. They just waved their guns around and made her go with them. They kept saying Mr. Schafer wants a word with her. Who the hell Mr. Schafer is, I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure he’s behind that wall.”
“But you were in there for a few days,” Lillia said.
“How the hell do you know that?”
“We’ve been following you.”
“Because we’re all looking for the same person.”
“You know him?”
Hayden appeared from around the corner and said, “He’s my dad.”
Damitri shot up like a weed. “Your dad? What the hell, man? Why’d he take my sister?”
“We don’t know,” Lillia said.
“Why’d you get kicked out of there?” Hayden asked.
“I got in a fight with the wrong dude, that’s all. Nothing that can’t be fixed. I never even saw your father. What do you guys want with him?”
“He killed my mother.”
“And he wants to kill us,” Lillia added.
“This is crazy,” Damitri said. “Did you know he took my sister?”
The coincidence was quite striking. Now Lillia wasn’t sure what to do with him. She thought they were dealing with a criminal type.
“We just picked you at random,” she said. “We were going to use you as a spy.”
“You’re trying to get at Mr. Schafer.”
“Yes. We need to learn whatever we can about him.”
“All right, I’ll do it.”
He shot Lillia a glance that was almost flirtatious. “You gonna give me a choice?”
Hayden stepped forward. “Yes, actually. If you want to go, then go.”
Lillia couldn’t tell if he spoke with sincerity or jealousy. Damitri nodded and started wandering around the room, looking closely at the paintings on the walls and the statues and the ceramic art, then up at the dome ceiling from which a chandelier hung two stories high.
“Like I said before, I’m trying to get my sister back, and if you want to kill your pops, I guess that means we’ve got a common interest. But I’ve got my own place, and my dog’s waiting on me there.” He stopped in front of a mirror and combed his hair with his fingers. “Probably needs food. Probably gotta take a piss.” His voice changed back. He was becoming Ayo again. “My shit is all carpet,” he said. “I’m a need to get back home tonight, know what I’m sayin’?”
“That’s fine,” Hayden said. “How will we get in touch?”
“I know where you live now.”
“We know where you live, too,” Lillia said.
Ayo gave her another amatory look. “You should come by sometime.”
“We’ll come see you tomorrow,” she said immediately, throwing him off balance. “To discuss specifics. We’ve already formulated a plan, but since you’ll be involved and you’ve been over the wall, we’ll need your input.”
“Damn, girl, you get down to business.” Ayo smoothed out his thin goatee and said, “While we’re on the subject of business, I’ve got one more condition for y’all.”
“What is it?” Hayden asked.
“Well, my ride is all the way on Baxter.”
“I’ll take you back.”
“Hold on, don’t be interruptin’ me now. I’m tryin’ to tell you my condition.” He peered around the room, raising his arms palms up and nodding. “Now judging from the size of this place, I’d say the folks who live here are pretty damn rich. Rich folks tend to have quite a few luxury automobiles, am I right? And I bet you all the dope in my pocket they only took one of those cars with them when they lit on outta here.”
“How about I just take you back?”
“How about no?”
Hayden stepped up to Ayo. “You don’t have a choice, dude.”
“I thought you said I did?”
“I said you can go home. I didn’t say you get to pick how.”
Ayo sighed–or rather Damitri. “You’re worried that thing in the sky is just going to disappear and the Rockefellers are gonna come home and hold you responsible for their missing car. That’s dumb, yo.”
“Their name is Baker.”
“Well the Bakers probably have full coverage, no? You can give me a car and we’re cool, or you can play it how your daddy would. Up to you.”
Two in the afternoon looked like midnight. In some parts of the city you could see the lower sky, but this property was full of trees. After Damitri left in a white BMW, Lillia took a walk around the place. All she could see above her were tiny golden dots drifting in the blackness. The giant squids hadn’t drifted down to the city in quite some time, but they were still there, weaving in and out of the jagged outer structure of the object, lighting up the night like giant fireflies, gliding in orbit without aim or intent.
Except to steal children.
Drake and Kate weren’t the only victims of those plasmatic beasts. The first Lillia had heard of but most certainly not the last. The night after Hayden and Sherman killed Ted, after the creatures stopped the bomb, one of those things came crawling down the side of a building and cornered the two boys Roger had with him. Lillia watched it open two tentacles like the mouths of snakes and shrink wrap themselves around the kids, liquefying them instantly and sucking their cloudy red remains up through the tentacles and into its bulbous head. That’s what Drake and Kate experienced. A painless but most violent death.
And she couldn’t cry about it. She didn’t even feel upset. Only the knowledge that she should be upset plagued her. She felt no emotion, only a psychological itch comparable to trying to think of a word or name that’s on the tip of your tongue.
If a giant squid could pick off children like a bird eating worms, then the little squid attached to her head might well be stifling her emotional response.
All the more reason to rip it off.
She passed by a fountain clogged with leaves and followed the peat gravel path through a gate and out to the rim of the property, where a stone wall well over a hundred years old looked out over the Ohio river.
Here she could see some of the Indiana sky. She sat on the wall with her legs dangling over the edge. Below the wall, the hill’s steep gradient ended at a cliff, and below that were small dilapidated houses bunched up together.
The Louisville skyline was just a black silhouette against the orange backdrop of the sky, though one of the taller buildings had some lights on in the upper floors.
Don’t forget to tell Hayden about that.
As she scanned the river, she noticed something else peculiar. Just to the east was the edge of Six Mile Island, a long stretch of land like a median between interstate lanes. When Hayden first brought her out here, he had to explain that Sjx Mile Island wasn’t six miles long. “It’s called that because it’s six miles from Falls of the Ohio,” he told her.
She’d never actually seen the island before and was surprised to find it was a wildlife reserve. No houses, no buildings, no bridge leading to it. Just forest.
And a campfire. Someone made a smart move. The Navy had boats on the river a mile or so past the island. Whoever was sitting around that fire probably tried to escape the city, came to the blockade, and settled for the island, an underdeveloped plot of land no one would bother, unless they liked water birds.
That might be a person to visit. Then again, they might want to be left alone.
She heard dead grass crunching behind her and glanced back. Hayden came strolling out of the darkness in his usual khaki shorts and plain white t-shirt marked with a single mysterious stain somewhere around the neck. Whenever he appeared, reality sort of slipped away and she returned to a time when falling in love was her primary concern. She could hop rooftops like a frog on lily pads and toss cars around like baseballs but she didn’t know how to let Hayden know how she felt about him. They’d spent every waking moment together since the day they met, and still he hadn’t touched her, aside from when they trained out in the yard. Kicks to the face don’t count as affection.
Without speaking, he hopped onto the wall and plopped down next to her.
Lillia pointed out the campfire out on the edge of the island.
“I saw that last week,” he said.
“You didn’t tell me?”
“I did tell you. Remember, we were sitting down for dinner. We had lemon pepper chicken.”
“We have chicken almost every night.”
It was true. When they first came here, Lillia found the chicken coup in the back yard and all the dead chickens and rotten eggs inside. Hayden cleaned it out and they spent the entire day scouring the city for living chickens. Now they had dozens of them and their daily meals consisted of mostly eggs and poultry.
“You were pretty tired,” Hayden said.
“That’s not it. I can’t remember anything. The other day I couldn’t even think of my last name.”
“I think it’s all in your mind. If it’s affecting your memory, why wouldn’t it affect mine?”
Lillia shook her head timidly and beat her heels against the wall. “Did you see the lights in that building downtown?”
Hayden leaned out so he could see around her. “Hadn’t seen that yet.”
“Should we check it out?”
“If you want. Maybe tomorrow. We still have to pay a visit to Private Duncan.”
“Oh . . . I forgot about that.”
Private Duncan was a soldier manning a watchtower the military had constructed in the southbound lane of I-65, just past the pile of rubble that used to be the Gene Snyder overpass. Months ago, when all the barricades were reduced to one-man posts, they’d ambushed Private Duncan and scared him into an agreement. If he let people leave the city if they so desired, and he was generous with classified information coming in from his superiors, then he would get to live the rest of his life. Lillia had no real intention of killing anyone, but she wasn’t sure about Hayden yet. When they accosted criminals on the street in their general effort to restore order and keep the peace, he was always more violent with his scare tactics. He even broke the arm of a drunken idiot who was slapping his wife around in a liquor store parking lot because she didn’t want him to break in and restock.
“We should probably eat before we go,” Hayden said.
“What are we having?”
“Take a wild guess.”
Before meeting with Private Duncan, they decided to pay a visit to Sherman and the others at Mall St. Matthews. The only way in was to climb up on the roof and enter through a service hatch, which led to a utility room on the second floor. Without cell phone service, they had no way of reaching the others, so once they were inside they had to browse around the mall like the world’s last shoppers.
Everyone slept in a furniture store on the first floor, so they looked there first. Lillia plopped down on one of the mattresses and hugged a pillow.
“You could have stayed home.”
“I don’t like to be by myself.”
“Me neither. I can see your underwear, by the way.”
“Why are you looking?”
“I’m not. I just noticed is all. You know, a skirt isn’t really the right wardrobe for a superhero.”
She sat up, sighing. Why did he always have to point that out? It was annoying. Was he really that offended? Mrs. Wilkins used to torment her with lectures on how to be proper, how to dress, how to behave. If she ever decided to put on a bathing suit and test out the pool back at the mansion, Hayden might have an aneurysm.
“I’ve never heard of a superhero in khakis either.”
“We need some spandex.”
“Have fun with that.”
“You okay? You sound a little on edge.”
He was right. She felt restless and wasn’t sure why. Maybe she did know but it slipped away along with the rest of her memories. “I’m fine,” she said, standing and brushing her skirt down. “Let’s just find everybody and get this day over with.”
“Want to split up to speed things along?”
Lillia stormed away, still not sure why her emotions were so high. She found Meredith and Roger sitting at a table in the food court. They must have heard her coming because Roger had his gun drawn when she came around the corner and spotted them.
“Hey, Lillia!” he said, setting his gun on the table. “Sorry about that. We weren’t expecting you guys today. Where’s Hayden?”
Lillia jogged up to them and sat down next to Meredith. “We split up.”
“What?” Meredith exclaimed. “I didn’t know you were dating. What happened?”
Roger burst out laughing, shooting flakes of food all over the table.
“I meant we split up to look for you guys,” Lillia explained. “We’re not dating.”
Meredith giggled with Roger for a moment, and Lillia tried but she couldn’t even muster a smile.
“What’s wrong?” Roger asked.
She shrugged. “I just don’t feel too hot today.”
“Everything good with Hayden?”
“I guess. Where’s Sherman?”
She noticed a somber look between Roger and Meredith.
Roger sighed. “Probably passed out somewhere. He’s been on a bender.”
“He’s drinking again?”
“A lot,” Meredith said.
“I’ve tried to talk to him,” Roger said. “He just apologizes and thanks me for worrying about him and goes right back to it.”
Lillia stood. “Where’s the liquor store?”
“You’ve been to it, remember?”
“No, I don’t. Where is it?”
He pointed. “Down at the end. You want something to eat?”
Lillia took off running. As she rounded the corner she almost collided with Hayden, who jumped back and said, “Whoa! Where are you off to in such a hurry?”
She didn’t stop or respond. The liquor store was just up ahead and the lights were on. When she reached the entrance, she saw him immediately. Unconscious on the floor. He was dressed in a brand new black suit and, despite the heavy drinking, looked cleaner and healthier than he ever had before. Too bad it was just an illusion caused by the clothes.
Something lay across his chest and he had his arms around it, but she didn’t pay it much attention. Instead, she started knocking over stands of wine and liquor, taking bottles and pitching them at others. She ripped the register off the counter and heaved it so hard that it knocked over an entire row of shelving. Before long she was wading in alcohol and broken glass, but she didn’t stop until nearly every bottle was broken.
She didn’t even notice when she started crying, nor did she notice that Hayden, Roger, and Meredith had come to the entrance to watch her throw her fit.
When she was finished, she weaved through the mess she’d made and approached Sherman.
“I guess that’s one way to do it,” Roger said.
“Honey, did you hurt yourself?” Meredith asked.
Hayden said nothing. He had his arms crossed and was staring at her as she knelt before Sherman, who hadn’t stirred even after all the racket she’d made, and inspected what he was holding.
It was a long box, gift wrapped with a bow and a little To and From card taped to it. On the card, barely legible, was her name.
“You gonna open it?”
“Not right now.”
They were parked on the north side of Gene Snyder where the rubble blocked off all lanes. Sometimes they took the entrance ramp up to the freeway and back down the other side, but here on the outskirts of the object it actually rained. Last time they tried it the median was soupy and the almost got stuck.
“Let’s go. His relief will be coming in soon.” Lillia stepped out and met Hayden at the hood. “Ready?” he asked.
As always, they counted to three, took off running toward the pile of rubble, and hurtled it in a single leap.
Hayden always landed first, but Lillia always won the race to the fence, where Private Duncan, an admirably alert and watchful young man, would be unlocking the narrow gate to let them through.
Lillia didn’t slow down until she slipped through the gate, just to make sure Hayden didn’t catch up to her. As she slid to a stop, he came down from the sky and landed in front of her.
“Looks like I beat you,” he said.
“The gate is the finish line. You weren’t supposed to jump.”
“Whatever you say, slick.”
She shot him a cold glare. He was pushing all the wrong buttons today. She hated being called “slick.” Someone from her past used to use that word all the time, though she couldn’t remember who it was or why she despised the person.
“Private Duncan,” Hayden said, turning away from Lillia and extending a hand to the nervous soldier. “Anyone come through today?”
“Nobody in the past week,” Duncan said. “It’s been dead around here. But look . . . there’s something you probably want to know about.”
For a moment Lillia’s anger abated. Private Duncan never volunteered information. Despite the agreement, Hayden usually had to pry it out of him. This must be important.
“Let’s hear it,” Hayden said.
“They’re coming in two weeks.”
“The army. I’m not even supposed to know this, but Dickie, you know, my relief, he’s the nephew of someone pretty high up in the ranks. He said the president and the Secretary of Defense decided enough is enough. They’re making a full sweep. They’re going to take back the city.”
“They can’t do that,” Lillia said. “It’ll be a slaughter.”
Duncan shook his head. “I highly doubt the U.S. Army is going to start mowing down citizens.”
“I’m not talking about citizens, you idiot.” She turned to Hayden. “He’ll kill them all. We can’t let that happen. We have to do something.”
“Like what?” Hayden asked.
“Who are you guys talking about?” Duncan asked.
Lillia ignored him. “We have to get to him first. Before they get here.”
“Are you saying there are more people like you in there?” Duncan asked.
“Yes,” Hayden said sternly. Then to Lillia, “So now we have a deadline, and we haven’t even seen him in action. This sucks.”
“I have to report this,” Duncan said. “I have friends stationed at Fort Knox and Fort Campbell. That’s where they’ll be coming from. They need to know what to expect.”
“No one’s going to believe you,” Hayden said.
“I have to try.”
“You keep your mouth shut, Duncan. If it comes down to it, I’ll let your army know myself. They won’t believe it till they see it, anyway.”
When they arrived home, a car sat idling in front of the gate. Hayden stopped as soon as he saw it and opened the door.
“Who is it?”
“I don’t know.”
It was full dark now, but the car was lit up by a security light.
Lillia waited until Hayden was several paces away and quietly opened her door and stepped out. Hayden approached the car on the driver’s side, calling out to the driver to identify him- or herself.
The door opened slowly and a woman stepped out, calling his name with a big grin. She had freshly curled black hair and light brown skin. The same height as Hayden, probably in her late twenties. She looked like a professional athlete. It was Lex.
Lillia cringed as Lex threw her arms around Hayden. When she pulled away, her hands remained on his shoulders while they spoke. At length. No wave in Lillia’s direction. No acknowledgement whatsoever. Finally she returned to the car and cranked up the CD player, blasting music from a local band Hayden had been following before the object appeared. It worked in drawing his attention, but he returned to the car with a big grin on his face.
Hear the song. “Willar D. Bee” by Aby Laby Land
“What did she want?” Lillia asked as he climbed in. Instead of pulling forward, he started backing into a driveway and turning around. “Where are we going?”
“That was Lex,” he said. “Sh–“
“I’m not stupid.”
Hayden looked at her with the standard wounded puppy expression guys always put on when they know they’ve screwed up. “She came by to tell us they’re about to launch the fireworks.”
“Thunder Over Louisville. It was supposed to be today, and apparently they’re going through with it. No air show, obviously. Have you ever been?”
“Haven’t you lived here your whole life?”
“This is unacceptable.”
He pulled out onto River Road and drove double the speed limit all the way to downtown. On the way he explained that Sam Smith got the information from one of his friends who worked for Louisville Gas & Electric, one of the title sponsors for this year’s event.
They parked close to the river west of the Second Street Bridge and walked down to the rail just as the first shells launched from the barges, soaring up into the night and exploding, lighting up the bottom of the object’s ring, a structure so massive that all the buildings in Louisville could probably fit inside.
Lillia became entranced.
“Usually they have music,” Hayden said.
“That would ruin it.” So would the crowds. Hayden had told her over six-hundred thousand people attended last year.
“Bad music to boot,” he said. “They should play some Aby Laby Land. Keep it local.”
“Drake and Kate would love this,” she said, and just then a swarm of creatures once again poured out of the object.
Hayden pointed. “Look!”
They came down in a massive flock, hundreds of them, and as they drew closer their shapes began to take form. Some were the giant squids, others amorphous shapes constantly in flux, like oil floating in water. Some looked like snakes or eels. Others were perfectly round orbs of light.
Lillia feared they would consume the fireworks as they’d done the nuclear bomb, but instead they became part of the show, dancing and weaving in and out of the explosions in a celebratory fashion.
“That’s awesome!” Hayden shouted, and suddenly he threw his arm around her.
She tensed, but he didn’t let go, so she leaned into him a little and for the first time all day felt the slightest relief. She even managed to smile.
But it quickly faded.
“Yeah,” he said distantly, staring up at the sky with his mouth hanging open.
About a hundred yards to their left, the Belle of Louisville Steamboat was rising out of the water, standing vertically and groaning from the strain.
“Holy shit,” Hayden said, and they watched as the enormous boat shot out into the river in a high arc and landed on one of the barges.
The explosion was enormous. Fireworks shot out in every direction, and Hayden pushed Lillia to the ground just as a shell connected with the I-64 overpass behind them, deafening them with its concussion and raining down a shower of hot sparks.
They stayed low until the flames on the barge stopped shooting missiles in their direction, and then they slowly climbed to their feet. Fireworks still launched from the other seven barges and the bridge.
Lillia peered down at the docks, where moments before the Belle of Louisville had sat undisturbed.
Barry smiled and waved at her. Then he turned back to watch the rest of the show.
To be continued . . .